MURRAY – Local artist Justin Roberts has a habit of taking his time with his craft of making willow furniture and art, but the idea was taken to extremes when he recently completed a two-year project.
Roberts is the founder of “Walk the Willow,” which he calls a “sculptural garden,” making willow furniture and other fine art, as well as teaching crafts to others. His wife, Shannon Davis-Roberts, is a bit more precise in her description, calling her an “eco-centric, social-entrepreneurial craft company” specializing in furniture and willow sculpture. He studied with Calloway County master willow furniture craftsman George Beard, living in Beard’s house with Shannon and their eldest child for four years as he honed his craft under Beard’s guidance.
For the past two years he’s been working on a large willow fence that spans the entire walkway in front of a house on Robertson Road South, and he finally finished the project last week. The finished fence is 77 feet long with a rolling top averaging 4 1/2 feet to 2 1/2 feet, with an arch of 9 1/2 feet, Roberts said. It is the home of Constance Alexander and Roy Davis, although the house is currently in the process of being sold as the couple plan to downsize and move to a smaller location later.
Roberts said that about five years ago Alexander and Davis commissioned him to make a fence for them out of sweet gum logs, and while they liked him, that didn’t turn out too durable than they and Roberts had hoped for. When they instructed him to do another one, he didn’t expect to spend as much time on it as he did. With the COVID-19 pandemic that hit last spring, however, he wasn’t working on as many commissions as he usually does and he found himself with a lot of extra time that he didn’t have. foreseen.
“I had already built a fence and they basically hired me to do another one,” Roberts said. “So I started weaving, but we never intended to go that far with it. Then the pandemic came, and they gave me permission to play. Basically, the rest is history. He just went on and on. I think I spent close to 700 hours on it and well over 10,000 saplings collected from the roadsides, on the outskirts of town and all over the town off KY 80.
“It was intermittently for two years between other commissions. Then when the pandemic hit it really gave me time to focus on it and play. It helped keep my mind occupied during the uncertain times of the day.
Even before it was completed, the fence had garnered a lot of attention on the internet. A photo of the current fence was taken on a website dedicated to English sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, and that photo ended up being seen by thousands on the popular Reddit website.
“It hit Reddit twice, and I put it there (Tuesday) night, and it went viral again,” he said. “Next thing you know, in three hours, I had over 400 new followers on my Instagram page. I was introduced (to Reddit) because the first time it went viral, someone had taken my picture and played it as his work. That’s when he first hit Reddit. I woke up the next morning and there were messages in my inbox saying, “Dude! Your work is on the front page of Reddit.” … So I set up an account to try and get my work back. (The person who posted it) tried to pass it off as an “endless fence, eight years of preparation.” I was like, ‘Eight years old?!? I’m only one year old so far!
Roberts started working with willow in 2012, and most of the materials he uses come from a combination of parts he picked from various places. He also recently started growing his own willow, and he even recently ordered some Spanish willow which was grown in Canada and shipped to him.
“I harvest it from the side of the road and around people’s ponds,” said Roberts. “Willow is this amazing plant that has the properties of extracting heavy and toxic metals from the soil, and since it grows in these ditches, (road crews) like to shred it or spray chemicals on it, so for me it is It’s almost like a race to see who gets there first. Over time I’ve been like, ‘How do I turn this material into something before it’s wasted?’
“So I put two and two together and thought about how I could use it. For example, each hand-cut stick turns into 4-12 scraps, and you can harvest that same plant for up to 28 years. I have planted a few parts of the fence in the ground, and you can see where it is growing. So it really took hold. Now the question is whether we want to keep growing and if you can weave new pieces as they grow, and they will graft together and get stronger. Or are we going to withdraw it? It’s still sort of an open question, how do we want to do this.
While the willow can be quite strong when woven together, Roberts said he used other materials to stabilize the fence when starting it up. He said he wrapped wire around the pre-existing concrete posts of the old fence before he started weaving in the willow. He said there is also a metal tube under the entrance to the arch which is anchored into the ground with 20 inch spikes.
Alexander said that she and her husband were very impressed with the end product. She said the idea for the willow tree naturally sprung from the gum log fence Roberts made in the past, though the news is certainly much more visually striking.
“We loved this fence and got a lot of feedback about it, but it didn’t wear as well as we wanted it to,” said Alexander. “So I spoke to Justin, and sure enough we had seen some of his other willow work, and he said he would really like to do something with the willow. We watched the fence being created and the process of its emergence. I don’t think any of us knew what it would look like exactly, and as things changed Justin would come to me and say (things like), “I would like to put small windows there. “
“I find it hard to imagine things like that. I don’t have that kind of 3D imagination, but I always said yes. And then he wanted to make an arch, and I thought, ‘This is very cool.’ I love the ark. So we experimented with its creation, and even though we are selling the house, I think we made the most of the whole process by watching it emerge. It’s very organic and really beautiful.
As a souvenir, Roberts also created a smaller piece of cedar-framed fence so that Alexander and Davis could display it in their new home.
“We love outdoor art, so it will be something outside of our house to bring a little bit of it with us,” Alexander said.
Roberts has a lot of other things going on right now. Southern Living plans to showcase the latest project he completed before closing, a giant basket he woven around a cast iron tub inside the magazine’s Idea House in Prospect, just at the Louisville exterior. He also recently completed a sculpture of a 6 1/2 foot tall dancer holding a bird in Kansas City, Missouri. On Saturday, Shannon will be giving a talk at the annual Hummingbird Festival at Land Between the Lakes’ Woodlands Nature Station on a project in which Justin and other volunteer artists remove invasive plants to build frames and wrap willow around them.
“We are teaming up with other artists, poets and musicians to reach a wider audience and raise awareness of important issues within communities as we build community sculptures,” said Roberts.